Did Slaves Braid Routes to Freedom Into Hairstyles?

In February 2019, a Facebook user shared a post (archived here) that showed patterns for hairstyles with a claim that slaves used braid patterns to plot out routes to freedom:

What if I told you all, during slavery, our ancestors braided escape route patterns in their hairstyles too flee bondage and seek freedom from their oppessors! #BlackHistory365

The claim itself did not originate with the February 2019 Facebook post above. A July 2018 thread on the Reddit sub r/IsItBullshit queried fellow redditors about the same rumor:

In that post, the original poster raised questions about the feasibility of such a strategy and asked how braids could functionally be used as maps. In the comments, other users pointed out a presence of initial search results for the claim but a dearth of authoritative sources to support it.

One prominent result was from a blog, which appeared to repeat anecdotal stories about the use of such a practice in South Africa, as did another with a related folk claim — that grain was secreted in braids. One example of the way the claim presented appeared in a June 2016 HelloBeautiful.com article:

Writing (if they even possessed that skill) or drawing out the map could lead to them being discovered and then most likely sold again, or killed out of anger from their master. How could they move and plan covertly with minimal risk of being discovered?

The women would weave the maps in their hair, carving out paths with their cornrows. Some patterns were even utilized to deliver secret messages.

A June 2018 Essence article also relied on anecdotal claims:

“[Hairstyles needed to] last an entire week.” Without time, resources or products, African-American women took to wearing their tresses in a more simplistic fashion. The women chose easier-to-manage styles, like single plaits, and used oils they had on hand, such as kerosene, to condition them.

Braids also served another purpose: They became a secret messaging system for slaves to communicate with one another underneath their masters’ noses. [Lori L. Tharps, an associate professor at Temple -University] explains that “people would use braids as a map to freedom.” For instance, the number of plaits worn could indicate how many roads people needed to walk or where to meet someone to escape bondage.

One of the earliest mentions online of related claims was in a 2011 Washington Post piece, “Afro-Colombian women braid messages of freedom in hairstyles.” In it, a woman named Ziomara Asprilla Garcia discussed the oral history of braiding at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Colombia:

In the time of slavery in Colombia, hair braiding was used to relay messages. For example, to signal that they wanted to escape, women would braid a hairstyle called departes. “It had thick, tight braids, braided closely to the scalp and was tied into buns on the top,” Asprilla Garcia says.

Someone in the crowd tells Asprilla Garcia that style seems very much like the one she sees black women in the District wearing.

“Yes, also,” she says.

“And another style had curved braids, tightly braided on their heads. The curved braids would represent the roads they would [use to] escape,” Asprilla Garcia says. “In the braids, they also kept gold and hid seeds which, in the long run, helped them survive after they escaped.”

“Why did they not speak the messages?” someone asks.

“By that time, a lot of the owners understood their language,” Asprilla Garcia says. The message in the women’s braids “was the best way to not give back any suspicion to owner. He would never figure out such a hairstyle would mean they would escape.”

Not every woman who was planning to escape had the same braids.

“Always,” Asprilla Garcia says, “there was a big mother in the whole group.” Such matriarchs always had a distinctive hairstyle. “The rest would know what it meant.”

In 2017, a New York Times Magazine item about the history of braid patterns describes the claim as a “legend” — not necessarily untrue, but still unproven:

The practice of braiding hair is truly ancient and culturally universal, dating back at least to 3000 B.C. If hairstyles have traditionally conveyed messages — about standards of beauty, identity, socioeconomic status — braids may be the ultimate example. In republican Rome, wealthy women wore their hair long and braided while slaves were often made to cut theirs short. Ironically, legend has it that in South America, cornrows were used as intricate, hiding-in-plain-sight maps to guide escaping African slaves to freedom.

Most sources place the folk claims in countries outside the United States, primarily Colombia and South Africa. The claim is also not without folkloric precedent, bearing close resemblance to a similar story about coded quilts circulating in the American South since the Civil War era.

In a 2007 TIME article about the existence of “quilt codes” and purported use during the Underground Railroad, scholars debated the plausibility of such stories. As one museum coordinator explained, much of the living history of slaves was not recorded properly:

But women like Anna Lopez, the education coordinator at the Plymouth Historical Museum, see no reason why the story of quilt codes can’t be fact. “What I tell kids is, who writes history? Men do. Mostly white men. Then I ask, who made quilts? Women did, and a lot of black women made quilts and passed on their oral history. No one wrote down their history, so who knows?”

Another expert quoted in the piece described how such claims are folkloric antidotes to the harsh brutality of the same history. Another added that in both respects, sorting fact from folklore was nearly impossible:

Roland Freeman, a civil rights activist and photographer who has been documenting African American quilters for nearly 30 years, has another take on why the story is so popular. “Hidden in Plain View is how we got over those white folks. Right under the nose of white folk we’re sending signs and symbols and they didn’t know it. While I think it’s so ridiculous, African Americans are starved for those kind of stories in our culture and we’re willing to accept it because it’s what we want to hear.”

Folklorist and quilt historian Laurel Horton, who has lectured and published papers about the quilt code, says she’s given up on trying to debunk the myth. Instead, she says she’s more interested on focusing on why the story continues to persist. “This whole issue made me realize it’s not a matter of one group having the truth and another not. It’s matter of two different sets of beliefs. It’s made me realize that belief doesn’t have a lot to do with factual representation. People feel in their gut that it’s true so no one can convince them in their head that it’s otherwise.”

Stories of slavery escape routes plotted in both braid patterns and quilts have long circulated in areas where slave trades once flourished. A vacuum of historical record documenting the experience of those enslaved has been filled with oral histories of heroism and great personal risk during a particularly brutal time in American history. Historians remain divided on the authenticity of such claims; their popularity persists.


Author: Ben